Māori carving school
By the 1920s the traditional arts associated with building whare whakairo were in serious decline. The situation attracted the attention of Apirana Ngata, member of Parliament for Eastern Māori and anthropologist. Ngata lobbied for a state-funded school of Māori arts and crafts. The school opened in Rotorua in 1927, and within two years had a small group of carving trainees – Pineamine and Hōne (John) Taiapa, Wiremu (Piri) Poutapu and Waka Kereama – under the instruction of Te Arawa tohunga whakairo (carving experts).
Going too far
Building whare whakairo in the 20th century meant combining traditional architectural practices with modern regulatory requirements for fire exits, adequate ventilation, electric lighting, plumbing and drainage. Sir Apirana Ngata, a key figure in the revival of whare whakairo, welcomed many of these innovations but believed that some building regulations ‘have done enough mischief by compelling rows of windows where there were none and letting light into places where it had no business to pry into.1
The school quickly began to take commissions from Māori communities wishing to build whare whakairo and wharekai (permanent dining halls) – a new architectural development. A role was created for women as makers of tukutuku (lattice wall panels). Ngata wanted all members of the community to be involved in the construction process, but this need had to be balanced with the prohibition of women from tapu (restricted) spaces, such as building sites. Ngata found a solution by inventing the free-standing tukutuku frame, which allowed women to stitch panels off-site before installation.
Embellishing the wharekai
Young people were encouraged to embellish wharekai with kōwhaiwhai (painted patterns), tukutuku and a restricted range of carving, as Ngata believed this would allow them to see the benefits of marae-based communities and the communal work ethic. Since the buildings were associated with food they were noa (free from tapu), and offered more freedom for artistic expression. A small number of more lightly carved elements were included in the wharekai alongside kōwhaiwhai and tukutuku, which were regarded as less tapu arts than wood carving. With fewer constraints, young people were able to participate in the building process without fear of the spiritual consequences that might follow from accidentally violating tapu.
New generation of building experts
By the time the carving school closed in 1938, it had produced dozens of tohunga whakairo, hundreds of female tukutuku workers and at least 21 whare whakairo and 10 wharekai, as well as six chapels and churches. A more far-reaching consequence was that a new generation of carvers, tukutuku workers and kōwhaiwhai painters had been trained and told to pass their knowledge on to others. Their leadership within the Māori arts community led to the continued construction of whare whakairo and wharekai as part of the government-supported war memorial construction scheme. The New Zealand Māori Arts and Crafts Institute opened at Rotorua in 1966, and other community-inspired initiatives followed.